WASHINGTON -- In a ringing declaration of the Constitution's commitment to racial equality, the Supreme Court struck down yesterday a law that allows only Hawaiians of island ancestry to elect trustees of a state agency.
The law, nullified by a 7-2 vote, failed because the court for the first time treated a state law that assigns benefits based on one's ancestors as the equivalent of racial discrimination -- which the Constitution prohibits.
The ruling was based on the Fifteenth Amendment, an 1870 amendment that gave freed slaves the equal right to vote. The court has since interpreted that law to ban curbs on voting that are based on racial or ethnic backgrounds.
It was unclear whether the decision would have an effect beyond Hawaii. But the ruling appeared to restrict -- and perhaps even forbid -- a state government's effort to preserve ethnic identity by giving a public benefit only to those who could claim family links to an earlier culture.
In this case, the earlier culture involves the traditions, values and symbols of the early Polynesian settlers of the islands. The Polynesians themselves were of mixed races, but they had a rich and self-sufficient culture.
"Ancestry can be a proxy for race," the court said in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "It is that proxy here."
Hawaii, the court added, had used its election law in this instance to "treat the early Hawaiians as a distinct people, commanding their own recognition and respect."
That goal, the court found, amounted to an unconstitutional "racial purpose," at least when used to restrict who could vote for the nine trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an agency that manages land handed down from the days when Hawaii was an independent nation.
Under the Hawaiian law, only those living on the islands who could trace an ancestor to 1778 -- before Westerners arrived -- could elect the trustees.
In granting statehood to Hawaii, Congress required that those land resources be managed partly for the benefit of descendants of the islands' settlers. The state decided in 1978 that because those descendants were to receive the most benefit from those resources, only they should cast votes for the agency's members.
The law was challenged by Harold Rice, white rancher whose family has lived on the islands since the mid-1800s. His lawyers argued that the voting restriction was racially discriminatory.
Although advocates for Native Americans had expressed worry that a decision against the Hawaii law might threaten the benefits that federal Indian laws have long conferred, the court did not disturb that relationship.
In fact, the main opinion drew clear distinctions between Indian tribes and the Polynesian descendants in Hawaii.
The court said it was unclear whether Congress had the power to treat native Hawaiians as if they were a tribal culture. But it said it did not have to decide that issue because the limit on voting was unconstitutional as a race-based grant of voting rights forbidden by the Fifteenth Amendment.
The dissenting justices complained that the decision curbed Congress' authority to preserve the culture of native Americans and to grant some reward to native Hawaiians as compensation for U.S. action in overthrowing their kingdom in 1893.
Likening the native Hawaiians in the islands to Indians on the mainland, the dissenters said the special election law and the land benefits agency were given to "restore a measure of native self-governance."
Justices John Paul Stevens wrote the main dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Kennedy's majority opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice David H. Souter, said in a separate opinion that they agreed with the result, but for different reasons.
About 20 percent of Hawaii's residents claim they are descendants of people on the islands in 1778 when Capt. James Cook and his crew became the first Westerners to arrive. Hawaii was a kingdom until 1893, when the last queen was overthrown with U.S. help.